What if you could, for a moment, have the body of someone of a different race, age, or sex? Would that change the way you feel about yourself or the way that you stereotype different social groups? Well, scientists have made that possible, and the initial results suggest that such an experience can have powerful effects on our biases about others.
In a new study published this week in the Cell Press journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, researchers explain how they have used the brain’s ability to bring together information from different senses to make white people feel that they were inhabiting black bodies, and adults feel like they had children’s bodies.
The results of such “virtual bodyswapping” experiments are remarkable and have important implications for approaching phenomena such as race and gender discrimination, which remain pervasive and ingrained in much of society.
“Our findings are important as they motivate a new research area into how self-identity is constructed and how the boundaries between ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’ might be altered,” says co-principal investigator Dr. Manos Tsakiris, a professor at the Royal Holloway University of London.
“More importantly though, from a societal point of view, our methods and findings might help us understand how to approach phenomena such as racism, religious hatred, and gender inequality discrimination, since the methods offer the opportunity for people to experience the world from the perspective of someone different from themselves,” he adds.
Negative attitudes about others are often formed at a young age, and they’re thought to remain relatively stable throughout adulthood. However, few studies have examined whether implicit social biases can change.
With an interest in exploring methods of modifying these biases, Dr. Tsakiris’s team has developed ways to expose participants to bodily illusions that induce ownership over a body different from their own with respect to race, age, or gender.
In this latest study, the researchers found that white people who were made to feel that they had black bodies reported that their unconscious biases against black people had diminished. Additionally, adults who felt as if they had children’s bodies processed perceptual information and aspects of themselves as being more childlike.
Dr. Mel Slater, co-principal investigator and professor at UCL, notes that “while there is no simple “cure” for racism or other biases, “the research shows that integration of different sensory signals can allow the brain to update its model of the body and cause people to change their attitudes about others.”
These findings come only days after a new genetic analysis revealed that millions of Americans who identify as European white are actually of a mixed-race background. The analysis, published in The American Journal of Human Genetics, suggests that the “new face of America” that demographers have long predicted would materialize — one in which the U.S. population is made up of a group of people with features from multiple races — might look a lot like the face we see when we look in the mirror.